Asian Tea Ceremony – An Emerging All Encompassing Beauty (Tea Magazine, Taiwan Aug 2014)


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Asian Tea Ceremony – An Emerging All Encompassing Beauty

Tea, Art and Yoga

The word 茶事(Tea Ceremony) has a different meaning in each Asian country.

    Yet what is common in our understanding is that 茶事(Tea Ceremony) is conducted by a tea master who prepares tea and it is offered to the Other.

    The Other is not only tea masters friends, it includes the invisible guest, like Nature, God or Universe, not only visible human guest at the tea ceremony.

    I was born and raised in traditional artist family in Kyoto, Japan.

    Tea drinking is as natural as we drink water and breathe the air. But to me Tea ceremony was quite exotic as it contained something unusual in its way of preparation and appreciation. To me when people called tea ceremony it gave me an impression of a metaphor for something much more than tea drinking. To me the word 茶事(Tea ceremony) always sounded like a secret Code.

    In my family house in Kyoto, our direct neighbour was a lady tea master. She had two tea rooms, one of which was a large tea room with a Buddhist shrine at the corner of the room. The main deity in the shrine was Sen-no-Rikyu – the Tea master from Momoyama period in Japan now widely recognised as Tea saint. The other tea room was a four and a half tatami size room, a traditional tea room which was designed by the 14th master from Urasenke tea school-Tan-Tan-Sai(淡々斎). It had a nice & calm Wabi feel and I perceived the character of the tea room as quite feminine. It seemed the character of the neighbour happy old lady tea master was reflected in the character of the tea room. The lady tea master had weekly classes at her tea room. I often could hear laughter while they were practicing tea ceremony. My curiosity grew about what was happening in the rooms. My family too had tea classes in our family studio and a male tea master was teaching my family and students of my artist parents. I could hear a lot of laughter while they were practicing tea ceremony. On the other hand the actual tea ceremony is very serious and silent, very different from the practice time. It remained mystery to me until I started Japanese tea practice. Even since, my childhood tea ceremony was always with me.

    Because of this background I had many opportunities to participate in tea ceremonies conducted by well known tea masters in different styles. These were all unique but mostly silent and serious, and very well focused.

    As it is known, the origin of Japanese tea ceremony is Zen practice and meditation.

    The word Zen is originated from the Sanskrit word Dhyana in India. It became Chang in China and Zen in Japan. In Indian tradition Dhyana is one of the main practices in Yoga. There is a misundersting that Yoga is only a physical exercise with many different postures but actually it is only one way of Yoga practice. In the medieval time temple monks and nuns, and lay Zen practitioners drunk tea before meditation practice. Zen practice has a lot of influence from Taoist’s practice and it has a lot of similarities to Yoga practice.

    During the meditation we are not allowed to speak and spread the attention to external matter. It is suggested to breath slowly and focus on one point at the forehead. Somehow this type of Zen attitude strongly remaining in Japanese tea ceremony today.

    As I mentioned Zen originated in India. It is widely believed that the prince of Kanchipuram in South India immigrated to China and founded Zen school of Buddhism. He is known as Bodhidharma (菩提達磨). This is is according to history record. The life of Bodhidharma is shrouded in mystery.

    Life is always unexpected. Now I am writing this article in my house just 2 hours away from Boddhidharma’s birthplace Kanchipuram. The history tells that Kanchipuram was once a large spiritual centre in South India and had many Hindu and Buddhist centres. Just next to Kanchipuram, the well known port temple city of Mahabalipuram existed as one of the main cities along coastal area of South India. Unlike Kanchipuram, in Mahabalipuram we still find the glory of ancient stone temple heritage near the shore.

    I live in a place called Auroville. It is a Universal city in making founded in 1968 with the support of UNESCO, Indian government and other governments, cultural institutes and enthusiastic individuals with goodwill. This city is meant for the evolution of consciousness and matter. Many experimental researches are taking place in the field of alternative energy, farming, education, healing, art&culture and other interesting projects. I became a permanent resident of Auroville in 2005. I discovered this place while traveling for my Yoga practice in South India. When I found this place I felt I had found my home. Since then I have been involved in the development of this experimental city. I held many events to introduce Far Eastern culture to the residents of Auvoville and people in India. And of course I practiced tea ceremony and have introduced it to people. My interest in tea grew much more in India than when I lived in Japan. One big reason is that it goes very well with Yoga and Art.

    I built my first tea house in India in 2010. I was involved in its design and construction work. It is always a challenge to work with local labours and in the Indian tropical climate. Then in 2012 I built the second tea room making most of it with local material, some old wood and antique temple furniture. Now I am in the process of creating two more new tea rooms in Auroville. It is not only because of my personal enthusiasm but it is because it is very well received here. Some guests are quite sensitive in feeling the energy(=Prana) of tea. Some are interested in the metaphysical part and philosophy of tea ceremony.

    Here I feel I am bringing the tea ceremony in totally different circumstance but isn’t it a coincidence that tea is also finding its home in India like I did?

Tea culture in India is totally different in its context. It was brought by the British and planted in hill areas like Kangra valley, Darjeeling, Assam, Munnar, Nilgiris etc. These teas are mostly made for Black tea (紅茶), for export and local consumption as Chai. After the British occupation, Chai became the national beverage. It is a wide spread daily ritual for Indian people to drink Chai. During the last 10 years Indian tea growers started to experiment by growing green tea and Oolong tea for Indian and foreign tea markets. People’s main focus is fragrance and taste. So far from what I’ve seen no one amongst the growers speaks about importance of Prana() in tea.

    In 2010 I have started a collective cultural program called ONE ASIA project in Auroville. I thought that to focus on tea culture and traditional culture in Asia would be a good start. Many cultured people from India, Taiwan, Korea, China, Malaysia, Iran and Japan participated in this program. Many concerts, art exhibitions, workshops took place. Many people participated and most of them are very beginners for the tea ceremony. But many participants discovered deep meaning in tea ceremony in this introductory program. To me it was a confirmation that I have to carry on this effort in order to create a new Cultural & Spiritual link among people in Asia. I can foresee very interesting outcomes. After that in a very spontaneous way, a successful ONE ASIA 2012 in Delhi took place with the support of many cultured people in Delhi.

    Tea Culture in Asia is still growing. It is a traditional artform yet still needs a lot of exploration and discovery. Exchanges in different forms of tea ceremony will be a very fascinating field not only for the tea lovers but also for many artists and creative people. What we call a tea culture in Japan, it is not just drinking tea but it includes most of the essential elements in life, such as: architecture, garden, calligraphy, poetry, paintings, ceramics, tea growing, cooking etc. Tea Culture is an integrated artform dedicated to uplifting the quality of everyday life. Here there is a strong resonance to the ideal in Zen teaching; “To meditate in siting position is rather easy. To keep meditative state in movement is more difficult and that is real Zen.” Tea and the way of tea appreciation is sometimes compared with wine culture in Europe and it is true in its sensitivity and elegance. But because of the meditative atmosphere and the all encompassing integral beauty in Tea culture, I may say it is very unique in the world.

    This year, ONE ASIA 2014 in Taipei takes place. I am looking forward to the further tea experience exchange with the people in Taiwan.

Jyoti Naoki Eri – 江里尚樹

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